Ancient History & Civilisation


1. The Plays

As Giotto rough-hewed the early path of Italian painting, and Raphael subdued the art with a quiet spirit into technical perfection, and Michelangelo completed the development in works of tortured genius; as Bach with incredible energy forced open a broad road to modern music, andMozart perfected its form in melodious simplicity, and Beethoven completed the development in works of unbalanced grandeur; so Aeschylus cleared the way and set the forms for Greek drama with his harsh verse and stern philosophy, Sophocles fashioned the art with measured music and placid wisdom, and Euripides completed the development in works of passionate feeling and turbulent doubt. Aeschylus was a preacher of almost Hebraic intensity; Sophocles was a “classic” artist clinging to a broken faith; Euripides was a romantic poet who could never write a perfect play because he was distracted by philosophy. They were the Isaiah, Job, and Ecclesiastes of Greece.

Euripides was born in the year—some say on the day—of Salamis, probably on the island itself, to which, we are told, his parents had fled for refuge from the invading Medes.80 His father was a man of some property and prominence in the Attic town of Phyla; his mother was of noble family,81 though the hostile Aristophanes insists that she kept a grocer’s shop and hawked fruit and flowers on the street. In later life he lived on Salamis, loving the solitude of its hills, and its varied prospects of blue sea. Plato wished to be a dramatist and became a philosopher; Euripides wished to be a philosopher and became a dramatist. He “took the entire course of Anaxagoras,” says Strabo;82 he studied for a while with Prodicus, and was so intimate with Socrates that some suspected the philosopher of having a hand in the poet’s plays.83 The whole Sophistic movement entered into his education, and through him captured the Dionysian stage. He became the Voltaire of the Greek Enlightenment, worshiping reason with destructive innuendo in the midst of dramas staged to celebrate a god.

The records of the Dionysian Theater credit him with seventy-five plays, from The Daughters of Pelias in 455 to The Bacchae in 406; eighteen survive, and a medley of fragments from the rest.* Their subject matter tells again the legends of the early Greeks, but with a note of skeptical protest sounding timidly and then boldly between the lines. The Ion presents the reputed founder of the Ionian tribes in a delicate dilemma: the oracle of Apollo declares Xuthus to be his father, but Ion discovers that he is the son of Apollo, who seduced his mother and then palmed her off on Xuthus; can it be, Ion asks, that the noble god is a liar? In Heracles and Alcestis the mighty son of Zeus and Alcmena is described as a good-natured drunkard, with the appetite of Gargantua and the brains of Louis XVI. The Alcestis recounts the unprepossessing story of how the gods, as a condition of allowing further life to Admetus (king of Thessalian Pherae), required that some other should consent to die in his stead. His wife offers herself as a sacrifice, and bids him a hundred-line farewell, which he hears with magnanimous patience. Alcestis is carried out for dead; but Heracles, between solitary drinking bouts and banquets, goes forth, argues and browbeats Death into relinquishing Alcestis, and brings her back alive. The play can be understood only as a subtle attempt to make the legend ridiculous.*

The Hippolytus applies with more finesse and grace the same method of reduction to the absurd. The handsome hero is a youthful huntsman who vows to Artemis, virgin goddess of the chase, that he will always be faithful to her; will ever shun women, and will find his greatest pleasure in the woods. Aphrodite, incensed by this insulting celibacy, pours into the heart of Phaedra, Theseus’ wife, a mad passion for Hippolytus, Theseus’ son by the Amazon Antiope. Here is the first love tragedy in extant literature, and here at the outset are all the symptoms of love at the crisis of its fever: Phaedra, rejected by Hippolytus, languishes and fades to the point of death. Her nurse, suddenly become a philosopher, muses with Hamletlike skepticism about a life beyond the grave:

Yet all man’s life is but ailing and dim,

And rest upon the earth comes never.

But if any far-off state there be,

Dearer than life to mortality,

The hand of the Dark hath hold thereof,

And mist is under and mist above.

And some are sick for life, and cling

On earth to this nameless and shining thing;

For other life is a fountain sealed,

And the deeps below us are unrevealed,

And we drift on legends forever.84

The nurse bears a message to Hippolytus that Phaedra’s bed will welcome him; he, knowing that she is his father’s wife, is horrified, and bursts into one of those passages that earned Euripides a reputation for misogyny:

Oh God, why hast thou made this gleaming snare,

Woman, to dog us on the happy earth?

Was it thy will to make man, why his birth

Through love and woman?85

Phaedra dies; and in her hand her husband finds a note saying that Hippolytus seduced her. Theseus wildly calls upon Poseidon to slay Hippolytus. The youth protests his innocence, but is not believed. He is driven out of the land by Theseus; and as his chariot passes along the shore a sea lion emerges from the waves and pursues him; his horses run away, upset the chariot, and drag the entangled Hippolytus (i.e., “torn by horses”) over the rocks to a mangled death. And the chorus cries out, in lines that must have startled Athens,

Ye gods that did snare him,

Lo, I cast in your faces

My hate and my scorn!

In the Medea Euripides forgets for a while his war against the gods, and transforms the story of the Argonauts into his most powerful play. When Jason reaches Colchis, the royal princess Medea falls in love with him, helps him to get the Golden Fleece, and, to shield him, deceives her father and kills her brother. Jason vows eternal love to her, and takes her back with him to Iolcus. There the almost savage Medea poisons King Pelias to secure the throne that Pelias promised to Jason. Since the law of Thessaly forbids him to marry a foreigner, Jason lives with Medea in unwedded love, and has two children by her. But in time he tires of her barbarian intensity, looks about him for a legal wife and heir, and proposes to marry the daughter of Creon, King of Corinth. Creon accepts him, and exiles Medea. Medea, brooding upon her wrongs, speaks one of the famous passages of Euripides in defense of woman:

Of all things upon earth that bleed and grow,

A herb most bruised is woman. We must pay

Our store of gold, hoarded for that one day,

To buy us some man’s love; and lo, they bring

A master of our flesh! There comes the sting

Of the whole shame. And then the jeopardy,

For good or ill, what shall that master be. . . .

Home never taught her that—how best to guide

Toward peace the thing that sleepeth at her side.

And she who, laboring long, shall find some way

Whereby her lord may bear with her, nor fray

His yoke too fiercely, blessed is the breath

That woman draws! Else let her pray for death.

Her lord, if he be wearied of her face

Within doors, gets him forth; some merrier place

Will ease his heart; but she waits on, her whole

Vision enchained on a single soul.

And then they say ’tis they that face the call

Of war, while we sit sheltered, hid from all

Peril! False mocking! Sooner would I stand

Three times to face their battles, shield in hand,

Than bear one child.86

Then follows the terrible story of her revenge. She sends to her rival, in pretended reconciliation, a set of costly robes; the Corinthian princess puts one on, and is consumed in fire; Creon, trying to rescue her, is burned to death. Medea kills her own children and drives off with their dead bodies before Jason’s eyes. The chorus chants a philosophic end:

Great treasure halls hath Zeus in heaven,

From whence to man strange dooms be given,

Past hope or fear.

And the end men looked for cometh not,

And a path is there where no man thought:

So hath it fallen here.

The remaining plays turn for the most part upon the tale of Troy. In Helen we get the revised version of Stesichorus and Herodotus:87 the Spartan queen does not elope with Paris to Troy; she is carried against her will to Egypt, and chastely awaits her master there; all Greece, Euripides suggests, has been hoodwinked by the legend of Helen in Troy. In Iphigenia in Aulis he pours into the old story of Agamemnon’s sacrifice a profusion of sentiment new to the Greek drama, and a Lucretian horror of the crimes to which the ancient faith persuaded men. Aeschylus and Sophocles had also written on this theme, but their plays were soon forgotten in the brilliance of this new performance. The arrival of Clytaemnestra and her daughter is visioned with Euripidean tenderness; Orestes, “yet a wordless babe,” is present to witness the superstitious murder that will dictate his destiny. The girl is all shyness and happiness as she runs to greet the King:

Iphig. Fain am I, father, on thy breast to fall,

After so long! Though others I outrun—

For oh, I yearn for thy face!—be not wroth . . .

So glad to see me—yet what troubled look!

Agam. On kings and captains weigheth many a care.

Iphig. This hour be mine—this one! Yield not to care!

Agam. Yea, I am all thine now; my thoughts stray not. . .

Iphig. And yet—and yet—thine eyes are welling tears!

Agam. Yea, for the absence yet to come is long.

Iphig. I know not, know not, dear my sire, thy meaning.

Agam. Thy wise discernment stirs my grief the more.

Iphig. So I may please thee, folly will I talk.88

When Achilles comes she finds that he knows nothing of their supposed marriage; instead she learns that the army is impatient for her sacrifice. She throws herself at Agamemnon’s feet, and begs for her life.

I was thy first-born—first I called thee Sire,

And sat, thy child, upon thy knees the first;

And we exchanged sweet charities of life.

And this was thy discourse with me—“My child,

Shall I behold thee happy in the home

Of thy liege lord and husband, as befits?”

And nestling in the beard which now I clasp

A suppliant, I made answer unto thee:

“I too will welcome thee, when grey with years,

In the sweet shelter of my home, my Sire,

And with fond fostering recompense thy love.”

Such were our words, which I remember well;

But thou forgettest, and wouldst take my life.89

Clytaemnestra denounces Agamemnon’s surrender to a savage ritual, and utters a threat that contains many tragedies—“Constrain me not to turn traitress to thee.” She encourages Achilles’ attempt to rescue the girl, but Iphigenia, changing her mood, refuses to escape.

Hear the thing that flashed upon me, mother, as I thought hereon:

Lo, I am resolved to die; and fain am I that this be done

Gloriously—that I thrust ignoble thoughts away. . . .

Unto me all mighty Hellas looks; I only can bestow

Boons upon her—sailing of her galleys, Phrygia’s overthrow,

Safety for her daughters from barbarians in the days to come,

That the ravisher no more may snatch them from a happy home,

When the penalty is paid for Paris’ outrage, Helen’s shame.

All this great deliverance I in death shall compass, and my name,

As of one who gave to Hellas freedom, shall be blessing-crowned.90

When the soldiers come for her she forbids them to touch her, and moves of her own accord to the sacrificial pyre.

In the Hecuba the war is over; Troy has been taken, and the victors are apportioning the spoils. Hecuba, widow of King Priam, sends her youngest son Polydorus with a treasure of gold to Priam’s friend Polymnestor, King of Thrace. But Polymnestor, thirsting for the gold, slays the boy and throws his corpse into the sea; it is cast up on the shores of Ilion, and is brought to Hecuba. Meanwhile the shade of dead Achilles holds the winds from blowing the Greek fleet homeward till he has received in human sacrifice the fairest of Priam’s daughters, Polyxena. The Greek herald, Talthybius, comes to take the girl from Hecuba. Finding her prostrate, disheveled, and distraught who had so recently been a queen, he utters some lines of Euripidean doubt:

What shall I say, Zeus?—that thou look’st on men?

Or that this fancy false we vainly hold

For naught, who deem there is a race of gods,

While chance controlleth all things among men?91

The next act of the composite drama takes the form of The Trojan Women. It was produced in 415, shortly after the Athenian destruction of Melos (416), and almost on the eve of the expedition that aimed to conquer Sicily for the Athenian Empire. It was at this moment that Euripides, shocked by the massacre in Melos and by the brutal imperialism of the proposed attack upon Syracuse, dared to present a powerful plea for peace, a brave portrayal of victory from the standpoint of the defeated, “the greatest denunciation of war in ancient literature.”92 He begins where Homer ends—after the capture of Troy. The Trojans lie dead after a general slaughter, and their women, bereaved to madness, pass down from their ruined city to be the concubines of the victors. Hecuba enters with her daughters Andromache and Cassandra. Polyxena has already been sacrificed, and now Talthybius comes to lead Cassandra to Agamemnon’s tent. Hecuba falls to the ground in grief. Andromache tries to console her, but she too breaks down, as clasping the little prince Astyanax to her breast, she thinks of his dead father.

Andromache.       And I. . . long since I drew my bow

Straight at the heart of good fame; and I know

My shaft hit; and for that am I the more

Fallen from peace. All that men praise us for,

I loved for Hector’s sake, and sought to win.

I knew that always, be there hurt therein

Or utter innocence, to roam abroad

Hath ill report for women; so I trod

Down the desire thereof, and walked my way

In mine own garden. And light words and gay

Parley of women never passed my door.

The thoughts of mine own heart—I craved no more-

Spake with me, and I was happy. Constantly

I brought fair silence and a tranquil eye

For Hector’s greeting, and watched well the way

Of living, where to guide and where obey . . .

One night—aye, men have said it—maketh tame

A woman in a man’s arms. O shame, shame!

What woman’s lips can so forswear her dead,

And give strange kisses in another’s bed?

Why, not a dumb beast, not a colt will run

In the yoke untroubled, when her mate is gone . . .

O my Hector! best beloved

That, being mine, wast all in all to me,

My prince, my wise one, O my majesty

Of valiance! No man’s touch had ever come

Near me, when thou from out my father’s home

Didst lead me and make me thine . . . And thou art dead,

And I war-flung to slavery and the bread

Of shame in Hellas, over bitter seas!

Hecuba, dreaming of some distant revenge, bids Andromache accept her new master graciously, that he may allow her to rear Astyanax, and that Astyanax may some day restore the house of Priam and the splendor of Troy. But the Greeks have thought of this too; and Talthybius comes to announce that Astyanax must die: “’Tis their will thy son from this crested wall of Troy be dashed to death.” He tears the child from its mother’s arms, and Andromache, holding it for a last moment, bids it an hysterical farewell.

Go, die, my best beloved, my cherished one,

In fierce men’s hands, leaving me here alone.

Thy father was too valiant; that is why

They slay thee. . . .

And none to pity thee! . . . Thou little thing

That curlest in my arms, what sweet scents cling

All round thy neck! Beloved, can it be

All nothing, that this bosom cradled thee

And fostered, all the weary nights wherethrough

I watched upon thy sickness, till I grew

Wasted with watching? Kiss me. This one time;

Not ever again. Put up thine arms, and climb

About my neck; now kiss me, lips to lips . . .

Oh, ye have found an anguish that outstrips

All tortures of the East, ye gentle Greeks! . . .

Quick, take him; drag him; cast him from the wall,

If cast ye will! Tear him, ye beasts, be swift!

God hath undone me, and I cannot lift

One hand, one hand, to save my child from death.

She becomes delirious, and swoons; soldiers carry her away. Menelaus appears, and bids his soldiers bring Helen to him. He has sworn that he will kill her, and Hecuba is comforted at the thought that punishment is at last to find Helen.

I bless thee, Menelaus, I bless thee,

If thou wilt slay her! Only fear to see

Her visage, lest she snare thee and thou fall!

Helen enters, untouched and unafraid, proud in the consciousness of her beauty.

Hecuba.       And comest thou now

Forth, and hast decked thy bosom and thy brow,

And breathest with thy lord the same blue air,

Thou evil heart? Low, low, with ravaged hair,

Rent raiment, and flesh shuddering, and within,

Oh, shame at last, not glory for thy sin. . . .

Be true, O King; let Hellas bear the crown

Of justice. Slay this woman. . . .

Menelaus. Peace, aged woman, peace. . . . (To the soldiers)

Have some chambered galley set for her,

Where she may sail the seas. . . .

Hecuba. A lover once, will always love again.

As Helen and Menelaus leave, Talthybius returns, bearing the dead body of Astyanax.

Talth. Andromache . . . hath charmed these tears into mine eyes,

Weeping her fatherland, as o’er the wave.

She gazed, speaking words to Hector’s grave.

Howbeit, she prayed us that due rites be done

For burial of this babe. . . . And in thine hands

She bade me lay him, to be swathed in bands

Of death and garments . . . (Hecuba takes the body.)

Hecuba. Ah, what a death hath found thee, little one! . . .

Ye tender arms, the same dear mold have ye

As his. . . . And dear proud lips, so full of hope,

And closed forever! What false words ye said

At daybreak, when ye crept into my bed,

Called me kind names, and promised, “Grandmother,

When thou art dead, I will cut close my hair

And lead out all the captains to ride by

Thy tomb.” Why didst thou cheat me so? ’Tis I,

Old, homeless, childless, that for thee must shed

Cold tears, so young, so miserably dead.

Dear God! the pattering welcomes of thy feet,

The nursing in my lap; and oh, the sweet

Falling asleep together! All is gone.

How should a poet carve the funeral stone

To tell thy story true? “There lieth here

A babe whom the Greeks feared, and in their fear

Slew him.” Aye, Greece will bless the tale it tells! . . .

Oh, vain is man,

Who glorieth in his joy and hath no fears, While to and fro the chances of the years

Dance like an idiot in the wind! . . . (She wraps the child in the burial garments.)

Glory of Phrygian raiment, which my thought

Kept for thy bridal day with some far-sought

Queen of the East, folds thee for evermore . . .93

In the Electra the ancient theme is far advanced. Agamemnon is dead, Orestes is in Phocis, and Electra has been married off by her mother to a peasant whose simple fidelity, and awe of her royal descent, survive her brooding negligence of him. To her, wondering will Orestes never find her, Orestes comes, bidden by Apollo himself (Euripides drives this point home) to avenge Agamemnon’s death. Electra stirs him on; if he will not kill the murderers she will. The lad finds Aegisthus and slays him, and then turns upon his mother. Clytaemnestra is here a subdued and aging woman, gray-haired and frail, haunted by the memory of her crimes, at once fearing and loving the children who hate her; asking, but not begging, for mercy; and half reconciled to the penalty of her sins. When the killing is over Orestes is overcome with horror.

Sister, touch her again,

Oh, veil the body of her,

Shed on her raiment fair,

And close that death-red stain.—

Mother! And didst thou bear,

Bear in thy bitter pain,

To life, thy murderer?94

The final act of the drama, in Euripides, is called Iphigenia in Tauris—i.e., Iphigenia among the Tauri. Artemis, it now appears, substituted a deer for Agamemnon’s daughter on the pyre at Aulis, snatched the girl from the flames, and made her a priestess at the shrine of Artemis among the half-savage Tauri of the Crimea. The Tauri make it a rule to sacrifice to the goddess any stranger who sets foot unasked upon their shores; and Iphigenia is the unhappy, brooding ministrant who consecrates the victims. Eighteen years of separation from Greece and those she loved have dulled her mind with grief. Meanwhile the oracle of Apollo has promised Orestes peace if he will capture from the Tauri the sacred image of Artemis, and bring it to Attica. Orestes and Pylades set sail, and at last reach the land of the Tauri, who gladly accept them as gifts of the sea for Artemis, and hurry them off to be slain at her altar. Orestes, exhausted, falls in an epileptic fit at Iphigenia’s feet; and though she does not recognize him, she is overwhelmed with pity as she sees the two comrades, in the fairest years of youth, faced with death.

Iphig. To none is given

To know the coming nor the end of woe;

So dark is God, and to great darkness go

His paths, by blind chance mazed from our ken.

Whence are ye come, O most unhappy men? . . .

What mother then was yours, O strangers, say,

And father? And your sister, if you have

A sister: both at once, so young and brave To leave her brotherless. . . .

Orestes. Would that my sister’s hand could close mine eyes!

Iphig. Alas, she dwelleth under distant skies,

Unhappy one, and vain is all thy prayer.

Yet, oh, thou art from Argos; all of care

That can be I will give, and fail thee not.

Rich raiment to thy burial shall be brought,

And oil to cool thy pyre in golden floods,

And sweet that from a thousand mountain buds

The murmuring bee hath garnered, I will throw

To die with thee in fragrance.

She promises to save them if they will carry back to Argos the message which she bids them store in their memories.

Iphig. Say, “To Orestes, Agamemnon’s son,

She that was slain in Aulis, dead to Greece

Yet quick, Iphigenia, sendeth peace.”

Orestes. Iphigenia! Where? Back from the dead?

Iphig. ’Tis I. But speak not, lest thou break my thread.

“Take me to Argos, brother, ere I die.”

Orestes wishes to clasp her in his arms, but the attendants forbid it; no man may touch the priestess of Artemis. He declares himself Orestes, but she cannot believe him. He convinces her by recalling the tales Electra told them.

Iphig. Is this the babe I knew,

The little babe, light-lifted like a bird? . . .

O Argos land, O hearth and holy flame

That old Cyclopes lit,

I bless ye that he lives, that he is grown,

A light and strength, my brother and mine own;

I bless your name for it.95

They offer to rescue her, and in turn she helps them to capture the image of Artemis. By her subtle ruse they reach their ship safely, and carry the statue to Brauron; there Iphigenia becomes a priestess, and there, after her death, she is worshiped as a deity. Orestes is released from the Furies, and knows some years of peace. The thirst of the gods is sated, and the drama of The Children of Tantalus is complete.

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